A Brief Update on Homeless Families

The family that stayed with us last night was placed in a shelter today.  We’d written her a letter documenting her presence overnight in our office.  She called us this afternoon to say she was in a shelter in Holyoke, to thank us, and to say she’d keep in touch.  She said that she’d talked to her training institute and thinks they might be able to work something out with her in spite of the several days she missed during this emergency.  We’ll invite her and her boys to our holiday party next month.

The other family we worked most intensively with yesterday was again denied shelter.  The mom was out of the DHCD office for a couple of hours for a job interview but returned before 3 pm.  When she was seen, she tried to show the worker a memo from a Boston lawyer laying out her opinion that the mom was eligible for shelter, but the worker didn’t read it and said instead, “Is this another letter from Arise saying you slept on their floor last night?” and she handed it back to her.  (I guess we’d better start taking pictures.) The mom says that at 4 pm,  a worker came out and said that no one else would be placed in shelter that day and they (the six or so families) could leave and come back the next day.

“There was one woman with two little kids and luggage and she just stood, there, stunned,”  Mom said.  “I wanted to take her with me, but wasn’t even sure where we going to stay that night!”  (The night before the family sneaked into  place where she is not allowed and that’s all I’m going to say about that.)

Christina, one of our board members who was at Arise for the afternoon, called to say that on the bus going home, she went by the DHCD office and saw a woman with two kids and a bunch of suitcases standing at the bus stop and Christina wanted to make sure it wasn’t our family.  I could at least assure her it was not, even as I wondered about the bus stop family.

Here’s something else I wonder about: why do those who are paid to serve the public have to be so mean?  Follow your rules if you must, but always treat people with kindness and respect.  Aren’t they beaten down enough?  What does it matter if they’ve made some mistakes or bad choices?  So have all of us.  The difference is that when you are very poor, you have no margin for error.  How easy it is to forget this when you have even a little financial cushion.

Having access to shelter is not only categorically based, it is income based.  You don’t have to be on public assistance– that is, welfare– to be eligible for Emergency Assistance– that is, shelter– and these days, fewer and fewer families are, thanks to “welfare reform.”  (If anybody has stats on this, I’d love to see them.)  What I do know is that in 1985, the year Arise was founded, about 140,000 families were receiving welfare.  I was head of household for one of those families myself for a while, and although life was still a struggle, I don’t remember living in the state of constant panic that so many poor families do these days.

In 1991, the caseload was down to about 110,000.  I think it was about this time that the Dept. of Transitional Assistance stopped defining a family as a Household and started calling us Assistance Units. In 2008, only 63,500 Assistance Units remained, and we end this year with a caseload of about 42,000 families.  So what do you think has happened to those 100,000 families?  Many did find work; some got an education or other job training, and even got ahead a little bit; a few even bought homes.  Many more stayed in the same place or became even poorer.  Five year lifetime limits kicked in under welfare reform thanks to President Clinton and also, thanks to Clinton’s NATFA, Springfield’s manufacturing finally bit the dust as jobs went south.

And then, in 2008, the same thing happened to poor families as happened to everybody else.  Few of us have recovered but for families on the edge, they and their  neighborhoods are on the verge of annihilation. Neighborhoods are the glue that holds us together, and they’re going fast.

I don’t know how the policymakers and elected officials don’t understand this, and why they don’t recognize that some day poverty denial– so similar to climate change denial–  will hurt all of us.

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